Monday, May 26, 2014

Lillian Weber, Plantains and the Didáctica de la Libre Expresión

(three rough drafts of this chronicle appeared on February 2013 as part of my project "mostrando" different stages "a la Ferreiro" of my own work in progress, where the writing takes place on an Ipad.)

Prior to becoming a pedestrian, elementary science classroom under the euphemism "inquiry center", the Workshop Center for Open Education was the ideal space for exploring the world as a material space as well as a world of ideas. A poet or a scientist, a behaviorist or developmental psychologist, a socialist or a capitalist, a homosexual or a hetero person were always welcome there.

Ideas discussed by authors such as Luis Iglesias (Didáctica de la libre Expresión) or Carl Rogers (Freedom to Learn)  were a given in an educational space where freedom, inclusion, diversity truly existed. Many stories, poems, constructs and procedures were presented or saw their genesis in the place that doña Lillian Weber (the Doña is used here to show respect and is also my own way of granting her the very special place she maintains in my heart and my mind) founded and directed for a long time. This essay is in honor of doña Lillian, who for so many of us stands, and must continue to stand, for the ideal human being -- and not because of some kind of cult adoration, or personality superiority or perfection of hers, since we had quite a few yelling sessions.

As an educator, one can point to those instances where goals are achieved with gusto, providing a great sense of satisfaction. If aiming at specific objectives, a traditionally organized classroom can serve as the space where these objectives are met. But if the purposes are larger than taxonomies, hierarchies or the rigidity of the traditional disciplines, then a different kind of view of the world and space is needed. There must be a place, physical and ideological, where possibilities to understand, construct, formulate an idea, a theory, a construct, a poem, bodies and languages are required, and that was the Center that  doña Lillian founded.

And in that place, plantains were, before I was asked to leave and forced to walk around with my bags of limited resources, one of the most liberating sources of knowledge a teacher educator can use, study and appreciate. Yes, plantains were an integral part of the course that for many years I taught at the Center.

Most of the students in the course being mentioned were of Caribbean backgrounds and plantains were/are part of their daily diet, history and economy. As Paulo Freire argues in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a great deal of what people know is completely absent from the highly organized, controlled and digested bodies of knowledge covered in traditional classrooms (for empirical evidence gathered in the NYC area supporting Freire’s idea, go to the study of learning environments and related curricula by Roger Heart as explained in one of the booklets published at the Workshop Center).

When students are placed in situations where these curriculum hierarchies or qualities are questioned or reversed, they react like all humans in destabilizing situations. During the first session, as they came into the kitchen area and saw the large amount of plantains on the tables, the discussion began, and not in the traditional form: sitting and talking by turns.  Sarcastic comments, statements began to come out from their mouths once they entered the room, as well as their nervous laughs at what many considered to be an item better left at home, hidden from the more cultured characters that rule the world of knowledge and propriety.

The goals at that point were set up by the participants. Without betraying the fields of history, science or economy, the participants entered into other related issues: their own sense of self-worth and inherited cultures, of slavery, the economy and diets; and since in the Caribbean each type of banana has a different name and many particular ways to cook them or eat them, the organization and conceptualization of knowledge became a route to study, follow and connect to many other themes, artifacts, scientific, artistic and literary expressions, with the resulting nervous laughs moving into the realms of curiosity (a quality killed by much of traditional curricula) and the worlds of epistemology.

The total didactic experience was -- to use a famous improvisational theater approach popular during the sixties -- a happening. A pedagogical happening in the Center involving plantains.

A great deal of educational practice is geared towards mastering specific bits of knowledge, and different new fads are continuously suggested to meet the “saecula saeculorum,” unadulterated curricula. Rarely were the procedures used by the disciplines or the intellectual frameworks, or the belief systems underlying the concepts or ideas being studied, covered or analyzed. And rarely did such educational spaces provide sufficient room for different voices to be heard. This was not the case, however, at the Center when she directed it.

When dismissing the educational fads or the petite classroom goals that characterize much of USA education, Lillian, while swinging her arms in order to give weight to her pronouncement and critique, always used a phrase that remains with me when recalling the richness of her soul, her brain and actions: “That thing or that thing” -- a constant and direct phrase, to be followed by long, hearty and heavily substantiated discourses.

Plantains at the Center were not reduced to specific concepts, ideas, or tiny, very tiny objectives. They were thoroughly studied, intellectually schematized, and then served in an escabeche sauce, cooked as mofongo, mangú, fufú, or pasteles, or fried as tostones or amarillos fritos, and eaten. Yes, we also ate as the palate is another learning resource.

 Ramón Frade, Puerto Rico, 1875-1954: El Pan Nuestro de Cada Día

Francisco Oller, Puerto Rico, 1833-1917: Plátanos y Bananos

(According to the statistics provided by Google, there are a large number of readers from France of this essay/chronicle. Since they do not seem to read other pieces, I wonder why, therefore if you are one of the readers and can tell me the reason, I would truly appreaciate it)

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